One of the things that make a well-written mystery compelling is that it’s believable. We can imagine that the people in the story are real and that the events in the story could actually happen. When the events in a story seem too contrived, or there’s too much use of “the long arm of coincidence,” it’s harder to believe the story could be real. That takes away from the suspense, and it can detract from the mystery. In the best mystery stories, all of the events fall out naturally from the story’s plot. That includes the way the sleuth gets involved in the case. It may seem on the surface that it doesn’t matter how the sleuth gets involved, especially if he or she is in law enforcement. But in well-written mysteries, the sleuth’s involvement “flows” from the plot, just as the rest of the events and characters do.
Some sleuths are private detectives, and they get involved in cases when clients come to them. A great number of Golden Age sleuths fall into this category. For instance, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe has his own detective agency. In general, clients come to him with cases. In The High Window, for instance, Marlow is initially hired to recover a valuable old coin belonging to a wealthy matron. He’s also hired to find her daughter-in-law, who disappeared at the same time. Marlow soon gets tangled up with the gambling underworld, some family secrets, and the police. He also has to contend with some murders that occur during his search. But the connection – the way in which Marlow gets involved in the case – is through being hired to do so.
Many of Agatha Christie’s novels are also like that. In Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), for instance, Hercule Poirot investigates the case of the murder of Amyas Crale, a famous painter whose wife was convicted of the murder. Poirot gets involved in the case when Crale’s daughter comes to him, insisting that her mother was innocent and asking him to reopen the case. Poirot is intrigued by the case and challenged by the fact that it’s sixteen years old, and there is no more physical evidence to use.
In Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, Mma Precious Ramotswe also often gets involved in cases when clients come to her. That’s what happens in Tears of the Giraffe, when she’s hired by Andrea Curtin, an American woman whose son disappeared ten years ago. Precious travels to the former commune where Andrea’s son lived, and through her unique style of gentle questioning, her observation and what she knows of human nature, she’s able to find out what happened.
An interesting note about private detective sleuths: Since they don’t really work for law enforcement, they’re not required to take cases, and it can add interesting texture to a story when they are reluctant. For example, in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, Hercule Poirot is asked to find out who’s been sending threatening letters to Samuel Ratchett, a wealthy American businessman who’s traveling by train. He refuses to take the case because, as he tells Ratchett, I do not like your face.
When Ratchett is murdered on the first night of the train journey, Poirot gets involved in the investigation as much by coincidence as anything else. He happens to be on board the train. The same is true of his involvement in Death in the Air (AKA Death in the Clouds) and Death on the Nile. In both of those cases, Poirot happens to be traveling at the same time as the murder victim is. Even though these are coincidences, though, Christie doesn’t stretch the “long arm” too far.
Other sleuths, of course, are members of law enforcement. They’re sent out on cases, and their involvement begins then. That often happens, for instance, to Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse and Inspector Lewis. But when the official detective’s involvement also takes on a personal dimension, this can add richness to a story. In one of Morse’s cases, for instance, The Dead of Jericho, he deliberately involves himself for personal reasons. As the novel opens, Morse meets Anne Scott at a party and finds himself attracted to her. He’s called away on a case, and all he has time to do is get her address. He finds himself thinking of her frequently and one day, goes to the address she’s given him – only to find that she’s just apparently hung herself. That human level of involvement adds texture to this story and makes Morse seem more real.
The same is true of Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti in The Girl of his Dreams. In that novel, Brunetti and Captain Vianello are called to the scene of the drowning of a young gypsy girl in a canal. Brunetti’s involvement in the case is official to start with, but it becomes personal when he is haunted by the young girl and obsessed with finding out what happened to her. He’s confronted by the fact that no-one has reported a missing child. He also has to face the realities of socioeconomic class differences, prejudice and bureaucracy as he searches for the girl’s identity and her killer. Although Brunetti officially gets involved because he’s sent to the scene of the crime, his involvement ends up going much deeper than that. Brunetti’s personal interest in the case adds to the story and makes him (and the dead girl) more believable.
Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford is also a very believable character because his involvement in his cases is often much more than simply what’s required of him as an official. For instance, in Road Rage, he and his team of detectives are on the trail of a group of terrorists who are bent on preventing the development of a new highway that will cut through the woods around Kingsmarkham. Wexford gets even more deeply and personally involved when the terrorists kidnap several residents, including Wexford’s wife, Dora, who’s been working on a committee to save the woods.
Unlike “official” sleuths like Wexford, Poirot and Bernutti, amateur sleuths’ involvement isn’t part of their job descriptions. So their involvement has to flow naturally from either their relationship to the other characters or their role in the setting. For those mystery novels, the key isn’t to add “personal” layers to the character of the sleuth as much as it is to involve the sleuth in a believable way – to be able to answer the question, “But would s/he *really* get involved in this?” Sometimes, authors accomplish this by making connections between the sleuth and the victim. For example, that’s how Laurien Berenson’s sleuth, Melanie Travis, begins her career as a sleuth. In A Pedigree to Die For, Travis’ Uncle Max dies suddenly of what’s thought to be a heart attack. When his widow, Melanie’s Aunt Peg, finds one of her prize poodles missing, she’s convinced that the disappearance is related to Max’s death and persuades Melanie to help her find out what happened. At first, Melanie is reluctant to get involved. She has a very full life already as a full-time employed single mother. However, her family connection and Aunt Peg’s insistence convince her to start asking questions. In this case, the sleuth’s involvement flows naturally from the kind of murder and the murder victim.
My own Joel Williams’ involvement in cases flows in part from his role as a professor in the Department of Criminal Justice; his students and colleagues know that he’s got expertise in the field and, in B-Very Flat, one of his students asks him to use that expertise to help her find out the truth behind the death of her partner, a talented violinist. Williams’ involvement also comes from the fact that he’s a former police officer. He doesn’t have access to police records any more, and he’s got no official status, so he’s not sent out on cases. But he knows several members of the active force, so he’s able to be involved in cases in a very informal way.
How does your favorite sleuth get involved in cases? How does that involvement flow from the rest of the story?